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On This Day in History, February 26: ‘The Great One’ — Jackie Gleason

On Feb. 26, 1916, Herbert John Gleason was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He attended P.S. 73 and played ball in the P.S. 137 schoolyard. His high school was John Adams. He was known to hang out in Saratoga Park.

At the beginning of the 1940s, Gleason played a few small roles as comic relief in such films as Navy Blues (‘41), Orchestra Wives (‘42) and Springtime in the Rockies (‘42). He couldn’t get the good parts he wanted in films so he deserted Hollywood for a career in other media.

Television proved a bonanza for Gleason, including the series “The Life of Riley,” in which Gleason played a Brooklyn character, Chester A. Riley. The “Jackie Gleason Show” became a top comedy show on the tube. It led to the spin-off series “The Honeymooners” from 1955-56.

The show rated tops as Gleason played Ralph Kramden, the Brooklyn bus driver, supported by Audrey Meadows as his wife Alice, and Art Carney and Joyce Randolph as their neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton.

The show was set in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn because the scriptwriters felt that this area, like Flatbush, had greater national recognition than other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Gleason always boasted of his Brooklyn origins, and Brooklyn, in turn, can boast of one of its greatest stars.

In 1961, Gleason returned to Hollywood in the role of the billiards shark Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, which won him a nomination for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Life magazine said: “Gleason, who fled Hollywood because he could not get good parts, covers himself with glory.”

He again proved his acting abilities (both comedic and dramatic) in Requiem for a Heavyweight (‘62), followed by other films, including Papa’s Delicate Decision (‘63), Soldier in the Rain (‘63), Don’t Drink the Water (‘70) and Smokey and the Bandit (‘77).

Jackie Gleason died from liver cancer in 1987 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Among his other honors, he has his place on Brooklyn’s Celebrity Path at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. And “How Sweet it is!” that Brooklyn’s real-life Fifth Avenue Bus Depot was renamed The Jackie Gleason Depot in his honor.

This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)

See the Eagle blog Brooklyn Before Now for more on Brooklyn history!

February 24, 2012 - 2:13pm


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